Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Defining Success

          By many people's definition, I was not a "successful" student. I struggled in elementary school with math and writing, and I was slow to begin reading. I have vivid memories of feeling enormous shame after getting back yet another math test that I had failed miserably. I can still see the vibrant red "F" at the top of the page. I was the kid with the multiplication table taped to the top corner of their desk. I also distinctly remember the stigma of being one of several students who were scooped out of class several times a week to be taken for "extra help". I say stigma, because again, I can remember the feeling of shame as I was led down the hallway by Mrs. MacMillian, the resource teacher, to a partitioned corner of the library which doubled as a "resource room". I can remember the colour of the carpet. I can remember the kindly face of my teacher. But mostly I can remember feeling embarrassed.
          In high school, my struggles continued. Although I was an avid reader by that time, often completing books in a single sitting, I still struggled in math and french. My years followed a predictable routine of failing a class or two, attending summer school, and once again failing those same classes the following year. By then, many of the feelings of shame had subsided. Despite my "failures", I was well liked by my teachers, generally considered a "good kid" and was finding some "success" in other classes. I excelled in English, loved to debate in law and won an award in band. However, I was a "good kid" making many "not so good" choices. In hindsight, my teachers must have known, but due to their considerable good will and understanding, my "extra-curricular" activities never landed me in the principal's office, nor did they prevent me from graduating. Barely. 
          In grade 12, having failed several courses over the years, I needed to pass all of my classes to receive enough credits to graduate. A challenging task for a student who was more likely to be found hanging out in the local coffee shop than attending classes. But somehow I made it through. And "back then" I even managed to get accepted into a local college. Much to my parents' enormous relief.
Grade 12 Garr. Don't judge- it was the 80s.
          In college, with the freedom to choose my courses, I was more engaged, enough to do fairly well in my classes. Well enough to transfer to University in my third year. But once again, as a result of a number of factors, I began to struggle in my classes. Another vivid memory- standing in my mother's kitchen trying to decipher the academic jargon in a letter that I had received from the University. I remember asking my mom in disbelief, "Does this mean they're kicking me out?" And indeed, that's exactly what it meant. 
          Perhaps a blessing in disguise. I began to work full time, and enrolled in a French class at the local college. I was encouraged by my professor to watch French soap operas and listen to CBC radio in French. I immersed myself in the language and the culture. And it worked. Once again I was back on track and re-admitted to University the following year to complete my Bachelor's degree. But even then, I wasn't one of those students who was particularly "passionate" about anything. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do "when I grew up". I spent several years moving through various jobs before I decided to return to school to obtain my Bachelor's of Education. 
          Perhaps now, I might meet a more traditional definition of "success". I continued on with my schooling, completing a Masters degree, taught for 17 years in a vibrant and supportive school district, and have recently moved into a Vice Principal position. I have a rewarding job, a supportive family, a nice home... But I am eternally grateful that my teachers didn't apply that more traditional definition of success to the 15 year old me, the one who rarely attended, made poor choices, and failed classes. They clearly had a broader definition.
          I'm grateful for the bumpy road that brought me to where I am today. It provides me with invaluable insight into the lives of some of my students. It provides me with the understanding that behind each student, there is a context, a story. I've seen first hand the impact that a supportive adult can have in a student's life. And I've learned to look very hard for the "good kid" behind the "not so good" choices. 


  1. Sarah, this is a lovely story and one that is worth sharing! There are more kids like this in schools - and many making much more dangerous choices or struggling in life at a level most of us have never experienced - than we sometimes like to acknowledge. I believe in embracing whatever journey you end up taking in life and learning from your experiences. Thanks for having the courage to share an example of this. We'll miss you in SD36!

    1. Thank you for your kind words Beverley. Much appreciated.
      And I'm determined to do my best to keep in touch- can't imagine taking this journey without the continued support of my #sd36learn colleagues!